ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
At this time last week, Iran was dropping missiles on bases that housed U.S. troops in Iraq. Those troops answer to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. He’s been in the job six months, after a career in the Army and the private sector.
Yesterday, I went to the Pentagon to talk to him about this standoff with Iran and where the U.S. goes from here. I asked what he was thinking when those Iranian missiles started hitting Iraq last Tuesday.
MARK ESPER: War is unpredictable. And my caution was always let’s see what happens, let’s understand their intent, let’s get a good assessment of the casualties. And then we can figure out the next steps.
SHAPIRO: A portrait of George Marshall hangs over his desk – the famous soldier and diplomat responsible for the Marshall Plan. He and Esper are from the same hometown.
On Morning Edition today, we heard the defense secretary talk about the administration’s conflicting explanations for why the U.S. killed the top Iranian general. One reason no Americans were hurt in Iran’s retaliatory attack is that the U.S. moved troops away from bases where they were targets. So the U.S. has suspended its fight against ISIS. That fight is the main reason American forces are in Iraq. So I asked Defense Secretary Esper…
How long do you expect that suspension to continue, and what impact does that have?
ESPER: Well, force protection always comes first. So we want to be very conscious of protecting our forces and the forces, the personnel of the nearly dozen-plus coalition partners that are also on the ground with us in Iraq. But you make the important point. We’re there for two reasons – to help the country of Iraq – the people of Iraq train, advise and assist their military to be more capable and to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS. At the end of the day, what America wants is Iraq to be strong, independent and prosperous. That’s what the people of Iraq want. That’s why they are protesting in – in their cities against corruption in their government and against too much Iranian influence in their government.
SHAPIRO: Do you expect the suspension to last weeks, months? Do you have any sense?
ESPER: It’s – you know, these are things that are conditions-based. Obviously, we want to get back to the mission as soon as possible, but we’re not going to risk our folks to do that. Keep in mind, at the same time, we’re conducting counter-ISIS operations from Africa through Syria into Afghanistan. So the pressure on ISIS continues.
SHAPIRO: So what is the impact of the U.S. suspending this mission?
ESPER: I think it’s too hard to say right now. I think, you know, we are very vigilant. We have a lot of monitoring and surveillance reconnaissance that stays up there. And we’ll watch it as it – as it transpires. We have other means to attack ISIS without exposing personnel – for example, drone strikes or fixed-wing attack strikes. So there are other ways we can go after the ISIS – ISIS and its partners.
SHAPIRO: You understand as well as anyone that when the U.S. goes to war or something short of war, you have to bring the American people and the politicians along with you. And in this case, the House of Representatives has just voted to limit the administration’s authority under the War Powers Act. The Senate may soon hold a similar vote. Do you fear that the people you need to convince are not being convinced?
ESPER: Well, you always have these challenges. You know, again, I go back to my time in the military as an Army officer. I watched very carefully in January of 1991 how the Congress might vote. At a time when President Bush, at that time, had deployed nearly half a million troops to Saudi Arabia, there was still a question as to whether they had the support of the American people and the Congress. And even that vote, I think, was 52-47 – a very close vote.
So contentious votes, close votes on these types of affairs are not unusual. It happens. It is – it is the responsibility and the prerogative of Congress, as the Article 1 branch of government, to have these debates. And they should be had and debated fully. But at the same time, the president has the responsibility, under Article 2, to defend the United States, to defend American forces and interests.
SHAPIRO: Let me ask you about a different subject. Twenty-one Saudi cadets have been removed from U.S. bases where they were stationed in Florida and in Texas – 15 of them for accessing child pornography, others for accessing jihadi websites. My first question is – why were these people allowed on U.S. military bases in the first place?
ESPER: Well, that’s a great question. And the first thing I’d like to say is – what sparked it was this tragic shooting. And we mourn for – for the U.S. personnel that were lost in that. It was just a…
SHAPIRO: Three of them, I believe.
ESPER: …Terrible incident – and others who were wounded. But it did reveal that we had shortcomings in our – our being the whole – whole of government approach of this vetting process.
So in the wake of that, I formed a small task force that looked at a number of things. Since that time, I’ve issued directives that have taken a number of important steps that increased the vetting of all foreign students – not just Saudis – but all foreign students coming to our programs, that improved the credentialing of those students and, third, that addressed other things, like possession of weapons and whatnot, to ensure that students that come here are thoroughly vetted and pose no threat, no risk to other students in the program, particularly Americans.
SHAPIRO: Shouldn’t this have happened before three lives were lost?
ESPER: Well, they were being vetted before – but clearly, in the wake of this, not thoroughly enough. So yes, I mean, the short answer is these things should not happen. The good news is in the decades or so that we’ve had this program – trained over 20,000, 25,000 students – this is the first incident I’m aware of. So for all intents and purposes, I think most leaders at DOD believed that the vetting was sufficient. But we’ve come to learn that it wasn’t.
SHAPIRO: Specifically, given that 15 people were accessing child pornography, you’re a veteran; you lived on a military base with a family. What do you say to those parents on those bases?
ESPER: Well, look – this is – this problem is not unique to a particular set of students who come to our country. We have this problem within our own ranks, as well. I think this is something we have to continue to monitor and crack down on because we can’t allow people who are conducting criminal acts or whatnot on to our bases and – and near our military personnel or our civilian personnel, for that matter.
SHAPIRO: We’re less than one month into the new year, and I imagine you had a plan for 2020. Can you compare the way these last couple of weeks have gone to what you anticipated when the ball was dropping on New Year’s Eve?
ESPER: Well, I do have a plan for 2020. And the plan remains in place, and that is to implement the national defense strategy, which means looking at ways to make the force more lethal and ready, to expand our partnership and allies around the globe and to reform the department so that I can focus on our top priority. That is dealing with the long-term strategic challenge of China. Now, the world doesn’t always come…
SHAPIRO: How much time have you spent on China in the last two weeks? (Laughter).
ESPER: Actually, more than you would think.
ESPER: I mean, the world doesn’t – the world doesn’t – you have to deal with the world the way it is, not the way you want it to be. And this is the challenge I face and my predecessors have – have faced. But I’m looking at every theater and every command to look at where I can free up time, money and manpower – forces to reallocate to the Indo-Pacific to deal with the long-term threat of China.
And so that review has already begun with Africa. I will be going down to Southcom next – in the next couple weeks to begin that discussion with them. I will be and have been looking at Central Command. I will look at every single command to do this. And I’m confident that we will be able to pull some forces out of each of these locations to make sure that I’m a – I am putting the priority of my resources to the long-term challenge facing the United States that is the People’s Republic of China.
SHAPIRO: Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, thank you for speaking with us today.
ESPER: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.